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Chess can rescue a kid from academic failure (the story behind Chessity)

Nov 15, 2016, updated Sep 17, 2020
StaffCoach 1312

As Chessity celebrates its 5th anniversary, read the story of founder Janton van Apeldoorn. His personal history explains Chessity’s origin and mission. 


How chess threw a lifeline at a boy drowning at school

(and now he’s doing the same for other children)

He must be retarded. How else could it be explained?

As a boy, Janton van Apeldoorn was drowning at school. While the other children learned to read and write, little Janton lagged further and further behind. He repeated grades three times. There was only one possible conclusion: Janton, born with oxygen deprivation, must be mentally impaired.

But he wasn’t. He wasn’t dumb, and he wasn’t stupid either. Quite the opposite, in fact: he was a highly gifted boy. But nobody realized. It took 64 black and white squares to turn the tables.

‘My father gave me a chessboard when I was 7’, remembers Janton. ‘To everyone’s surprise, I could learn how to play chess. I joined the local chess club and in the same year, I became the club champion. I still remember the look on my teacher’s face when I told her.’

There he was. Standing in front of her. This skinny kid devoid of any normal learning abilities, telling her he was a chess champion.


‘There was a visible shift in the way she perceived me. I saw her thinking and reflecting in her mind. What had she missed? What had they all missed?’ 


They’d already given up on me. Now, they perceived that I did have the ability to master something, something as complicated as chess even, and I was given opportunities.

Janton turned out to be severely dyslexic. ‘If it hadn’t been for chess, I would never have been tested and diagnosed. They’d already given up on me. Now, they perceived that I did have the ability to master something, something as complicated as chess even, and I was given opportunities.’

It boosted his self-esteem. But it didn’t change his life straight away.

The brain benefits of chess

At the age of 12, despite his high intelligence, Janton could still barely read or write. ‘But things had started to shift in my brain and I really believe that chess caused that shift. I feel that chess slowly rearranged my brain to function in a normal way.’

There’s plenty of scientific evidence to back up the brain benefits of chess. Playing chess stimulates the growth of dendrites, the branch-like projections of neurons that function like mini-computers in the brain. Chess players train both sides of their brain, learn to think in patterns and use the medial temporal lobe of the brain, an area focused on learning new long-term memories.

As a result, children who play chess have been found to have a higher IQ and do better in school for years to come. Chess improves a child’s thinking, reading, math, spatial analysis and nonverbal reasoning ability.

‘Chess is a gift for the brain’, says Janton. ‘There’s really no other way to put it.’

Although it still took him to the age of 27 to get his degree, Janton has experienced this gift first hand. But perhaps the greatest gift that chess gave him was self-confidence. ‘Experiencing success, discovering that you can learn something, that you are able to cross hurdles, that other people recognize your areas of strength: that is priceless.’

It was this experience that inspired Janton (now 44 and a Candidate Master in chess) to create Chessity: an online program that facilitates chess teaching in schools, libraries and chess clubs. ‘Chess threw me a lifeline. Now I want to do the same for other kids who are, for some reason, having a hard time at school.’

Chessity is about creating the oppertunity to learn chess for as many children as possible

A low-cost program to easily teach chess

Janton can’t singlehandedly teach chess to each and every child in the world. But as a successful IT-consultant and online entrepreneur, he could team up with others to create a low-cost program that enables teachers and chess coaches to easily teach large groups of students.

‘That’s what Chessity is all about: creating the opportunity for as many children as possible to learn chess. To offer their brains this capital gift.’

Janton explains: ‘Even school teachers who cannot play themselves, can use the program to teach chess, thus creating unique opportunities to incorporate chess into the school curriculum. Experienced chess teachers often find it hard to instruct entire classes, with over twenty students across mixed chess levels. So that’s another obstacle that we had to remove.’

Using 21st-century teaching technology, Chessity is designed for learning by doing. The system automatically adapts to a student’s chess level and lets every student – both weak and strong - experience success. Teachers are provided with invaluable data to gain insights into their students' learning process so that they can guide them along.

Chessity uses game-based learning. Gaming elements are fun and create motivation. But they also provide another brain booster: research shows that games reward the brain more effectively than traditional ways of learning.

I want to save the kids that are drowning. At best, they are perceived as children with learning or behavioral problems. At worst, they go unnoticed.

A worldwide success with chess professionals

Since its introduction in 2011, schools and chess coaches from all over the world have started using Chessity. International chess masters and grandmasters sing the program’s praise. ‘Of course, that’s flattering’, says Janton. ‘I would lie if I said it isn’t. More important, it proofs that we are on the right track. That Chessity works in the way we had in mind.’

But praise and appreciation are not what Janton is after.

His only object is to save the kids that are drowning. The kids that are struggling to keep up. ‘At best,’ he says, ‘they are perceived as children with learning or behavioral problems. At worst, they go unnoticed.’

There’s one in every class.

Like the little 7-year-old boy in a school in Eindhoven (Netherlands), for instance, where chairman Marleen van Amerongen of the Royal Dutch Chess Federation (KNSB) recently gave a chess workshop using Chessity. The kid has severe concentration problems, his teacher tells. ‘Normally, he can’t sit still for more than two minutes. Then he gets noisy and disruptive. He is quite a handful for me as a teacher.’

She is absolutely astonished when she watches the boy learn chess. ‘He has been intensely focused for over half an hour! I can hardly believe it and I am really proud of him. This helps me see him with new eyes.’

It is moments like these that fulfill Janton. ‘Whenever they happen, they make my day. This is the true power of chess.’

I want to know more about Chessity for Coaches

Watch the video below (English subtitles available) to discover how much fun children have when they use Chessity: 



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querix_play 13:01 - 16 Nov 2016
Dear Janton, keep up the good work!
Janton 13:14 - 16 Nov 2016
Thanks, I will!

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